AMD Radeon HD 6870 & HD 6850 Review

Author: Michael "SKYMTL" Hoenig
Date: October 20, 2010
Product Name: AMD Radeon HD 6870 / HD 6850
Purchase at NCIX: | | UK
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Whenever a new or even “refreshed” architecture is released, there are always high expectations for performance and even pricing that usually fizzle out once reality sets in. AMD’s HD 6870 and HD 6850 are two cards that finally buck this trend and actually managed to exceed our expectations in nearly every conceivable way. The changes between Cypress and Barts can’t necessarily be counted as revolutionary but AMD has shown how small tweaks to an existing architecture can result in a family of products that deliver the goods at a reasonable price point.

Much of the criticism that was justifiably leveled against NVIDIA’s higher end Fermi cards was never aimed at the GTX 460 products simply because they were and still are highly competitive products. The HD 6800 series meanwhile is very much like the GTX 460 in this respect. Parallels can even be drawn between these new AMD cards’ accomplishments in terms of price, performance and efficiency and those of the now-legendary 8800 GT. Much like the 8800 GT, both the HD 6870 and HD 6850 punch far above their weight categories and as such have had a profound impact upon the $150 to $250 market even before launch.

When looking at things from a purely numerical perspective, the HD 6870 is quite obviously a product to be reckoned with. It has the ability to significantly outdistance the GTX 460 1GB at nearly every single resolution and IQ setting we used which came as a complete shock considering its price hovers around the $240 mark. When compared to the HD 5850, the Barts XT is still a clear winner; particularly in DX11 games like Lost Planet 2 where tessellation speed is essential. Due to its high clock speeds, on-die communication improvements and tweaked tessellation performance, the HD 6870 can even run with the HD 5870 and GTX 470 in some situations. Along with relatively low power consumption, these factors make this $239 card a clear choice when it comes to choosing a GPU between the $200 and $250 marks.

The HD 6850’s place in the market is a bit less ambitious than its big brother and its overall performance advantage over the competition is slightly less clear cut but it fits perfectly into a particular market niche. This card runs circles around the anemic HD 5830 while posting a few results that brought it close to the HD 5850’s performance level. In our opinion, the HD 6850 provides an excellent alternative to the GTX 460 768MB and has the ability to compete directly against the more expensive GTX 460 1GB. It's performance (like that of the HD 6870) does drop a bit when AA is turned on but by and large the HD 6850's results are simply impressive for a card that is being introduced for under $180.

One item which needs to be mentioned is the high resolution performance both HD 6800-series cards displayed. We doubt that many people buying a $250 card will spend $1000 or more on a 30” monitor but you can count the HD 6870 and HD 6850 as a kind of security net for future upgrades. If you decide to take the plunge into 2560 x 1600 gaming, the products based off of the Barts architecture won’t cause your games to fall flat on their faces.

At this point we can’t really draw any conclusions about AMD’s announced “graphics plus” initiatives simply because many of them are still works in progress. However, from the outside looking in AMD definitely seems to be heading in the right direction on this front as well. There are still lingering questions regarding support, implementation and control over stereo 3D on their hardware but stay tuned for a full HD3D article sometime in the near future.

With the HD 6870 and HD 6850, AMD has proven they can deliver evolutionary products that hit all the right points while remaining highly competitive performance-wise. They also retail for prices which are appealing for the vast majority of gamers. We can say one thing without a doubt: the shake-up they are about to cause is exactly what the GPU market needed.

The stage is now set for the upcoming releases of both Cayman and Antilles and if the HD 6800-series is an indication of what’s to come, we’re in for one heck of a Christmas shopping season.

AMD Radeon HD 6870 & HD 6850 Review Comment Thread

Note that due to the limited time we had with these cards, Crossfire and Overclocking articles will be published separately

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